Lion is the true story of Saroo, a young boy from India who becomes separated from his family after accompanying his brother on the train to find work. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is charismatic, intelligent, and stronger than he looks. When his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), tells him that he’s leaving to get work, Saroo insist upon going. He proves he has the strength to work in the field (he is not old enough to know the name of his hometown), by barely lifting a bike. Both boys take a train to a town. When they arrive to the train station, Saroo, tired from the trip, falls asleep after his brother leaves to find work. When he awakes, he is unable to find his brother, boards a train in search of him, and is transported across India to Calcutta.
The primary conflict in Lion is a boy finding his way home. The primary conflict, B, is that boy navigating the dangers.
One such danger, is human trafficking, specifically children. When Saroo is left on the streets, he finds a group of homeless children in a train station. In the dead of night, these kids, boys and girls, are kidnapped by multiple men. Saroo is the only one to escape. Later, when he befriends Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), she invites him to her apartment. He is washed. He is fed. Then she brings a man, Rawa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who she says can help him find his mother. Saroo is keen. He runs. When he is taken to an orphanage, he watches as children are disciplined by being sold into sex trades, only to be brought back the next day. In the orphanage, Saroo is put up for adoption.
Unfortunately, this is when the film looses some of its momentum. As much as Director Garth Davis wants to make a film about child exploitation, the child has to return home, and there lies the challenge. Enter Dev Patel (Older Saroo).
Patel’s demonstration of self-doubt, anger, resentment of his surroundings, fear of disappointing his adoptive mother if she knew he was searching for his “real” mother, are the feelings of most adoptive children, and some immigrants. Patel’s evolving identity is further translated with his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara).
The exchanges between Patel and Mara aren’t convincing. It’s difficult to see the role of Mara as anything other than a person Patel can shout at. To Mara, he exposes all of his resentment. A type of survivor’s guilt. Why has he been handed a “better” life, while his family suffers? The question needs to be asked. Still, barring that question, Mara’s existence in the film is near inconsequential. Patel tracks his family alone. He continually replays images in his head of the day he lost his brother. He ceaselessly searches Google map for clues of where he may have been. What train he might have taken. Where home is. All the while, Mara is asleep in bed. Many of these sequences are unsatisfying. It’s still not entertaining to see someone click away on a computer, no matter the purpose. The film stalls.
Lion is trying to do a lot. At times it has bitten off too much. The first half of the film is so endearing, it makes the second half mere formality. While Kidman shines as the emotionally exhausted mother, it’s not clear why she’s exhausted. After Saroo was adopted, his new parents adopted another child to be his brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). When Mantosh becomes emotional, he hits his head against objects. It’s never clear why he does this. Does he have a mental disability? Was he raped, and this is his PTSD? A blank spot is left. And little is done to show why Kidman looks near death toward the end of the film. Is it because of Mantosh? Because Patel’s character is showing-up less? Maybe. But leaps are required to put 1 and 1 together.
The story of Saroo is harrowing and courageous. It almost writes itself. Almost. For all its strengths, Lion sags in a few too many places. And too often comes short of actually saying anything. If the film is attempting to highlight child trafficking, then it’d be helpful if it said something in the second half of the film as well. Patel spends an hour shouting everything else at Mara. Why not have a conversation? If Patel’s brother has significant issues,then why not talk about that too?
There is showing. There is telling. At times, Lion forgets to do both. A good story isn’t always enough. Here, the story will be enough to bring tears. But if you’re looking for more, then Lion is short. Maybe Patel should ask Will McAvoy for help with….
Follow 812filmreviews on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/812filmreviews/